Egyptian and regional desserts offer an endless variety – whether you like them syrupy sweet or with orange blossom water.
This post is sponsored by InterContinental Cairo Semiramis.
Egypt has a huge array of sweets to be savored over strong coffee or at its numerous bustling cafes.
Egyptian and local desserts are especially popular during Ramadan, when even families on a budget don’t hesitate to splurge and put the finest on their tables. There are long lines at the pastry shops downtown as everyone stocks up on their goodies. Iftar guests often bring boxes of sweets for their hosts.
But where can you start sampling amid such a wide variety?
I head to the Cafe Corniche at InterContinental Cairo Semiramis and spend a few glorious days tasting all the traditional desserts that Egypt and the region has to offer.
And I talk with the team of cooks about what goes into making these sweets, and the traditions behind the dishes.
The Cafe Corniche is tucked into a quiet corner on the hotel’s ground floor. It’s filled with dark wood panelling and iron lanterns that recall the legendary Egyptian cafes of yesteryear.
During Ramadan, guests can order holiday sweets and Egyptian desserts by the kilo piled up on trays or in customizable boxes. The cafes staff turn out a whopping 35 kilos of pastries every day during the Holy Month. And that includes all the traditional Ramadan sweets plus their varieties.
So if you’re in Egypt, there’s plenty to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Here are the famous desserts you must try in Egypt:
This famous semolina sweet cake is likely what comes to mind when you think of Middle Eastern sweets. Rich, heavy and syrupy, basbousa is a decadent little square that feels like pure sugar melting on your tongue.
It should be topped with a spoonful of yogurt to break that sweetness down, or paired with bitter coffee or mint tea, says Assistant Chef Khaled Hussein at Cafe Corniche.
The main ingredients – semolina, sugar, ghee and milk – make this a humble and simple dessert that’s not difficult to prepare. And it’s often made during Ramadan by the tray-full by families or ordered in bulk.
Basbousa is one of Egypt’s most popular desserts.
It can be made with different types of nuts or cream, says Hussein, and can be whipped up with more or less sugar. Though Egyptians often prefer it very sweet.
“The art of making basbousa differs from one person to another,” Hussein says. “It distinguishes one chef from another. And different pastry shops will all have their own style.”
Basbousa is eaten across the Middle East and North Africa, and also in Turkey, Greece and Armenia. Though it likely originated with the Ottomans, the inventors of several iconic Ramadan sweets.
2. UM ALI
Um Ali is a purely Egyptian dessert – and one of the cuisine’s most famous creations.
It’s a blend of puff pastry bits with pistachios, coconut flakes and raisins, with plenty of sweetened milk poured over the top. All these ingredients create a texture that’s a pleasure to eat. And it’s not too sweet thanks to the crunchy nuts and cream.
It’s all about the dough, which is prepared especially for this dessert, Hussein says. The dough for Um Ali is folded over and flattened with a layer of butter in the middle. And this process is repeated a half dozen times with an hour of waiting in between before the dough is popped into the oven.
At Cafe Corniche, the Um Ali includes plenty of nuts that add a crunchy texture and contrast the creaminess of the milky pastry. Odd bursts of raisins pack in some sweetness.
Um Ali is one of the Egyptian desserts that’s especially good during Ramadan after fasting, Hussein says. The dessert is rich in calcium and vitamins that are replenishing after a long day of fasting. The cream helps aid digestion.
Though this wonderful Egyptian dessert has a dark history that goes back to the country’s Mamluk rule.
The gory story behind Um Ali
Sultana Shajrat Addor was a rare female ruler who wanted to wield complete power over her domain. She married, for appearance’s sake. But when her husband refused to play second fiddle, she had him assassinated.
This murder angered Um Ali, the slain Sultan’s first wife. So Um Ali bribed Addor’s maids to beat her to death. Um Ali then told her cooks to throw together a desert to celebrate this occasion. Dishes were distributed to the people with a surprise gold coin inside.
Um Ali is my absolute favorite of all Egyptian desserts. And I’ll pass up just about any sweets to save room for it. Though I usually avoid it at buffets, where it’s often served from a huge bowl with a laddle. It can get thin and runny when it’s mass-produced.
For the best quality, I recommend a place like Cafe Corniche where each individual bowl is baked on its own for a crunchy surface. And where there’s plenty of cream and nuts inside.
3. BALAH EL SHAM
One of the most syrupy Ramadan sweets of them all, Balah el Sham are crunchy on the outside and sweet and chewy on the inside. They’re best eaten with a dash of yogurt or with strong coffee to break up that intensity of sugar.
Balah el Sham are deep-fried and then dipped into syrup, which then seeps into the ridges. They’re made with the dough stuffed into a pastry bag and then piped over some warm oil, and sometimes topped with pistachios.
They’re also sold as a street food in Cairo during Ramadan. The food carts fill the air with the sweet and intoxicating scent of frying dough that’s difficult to resist.
4. LOKMET EL KADI
Lokmet el Kadi resemble donut holes, but they’re more syrupy. They’re often sold as a street food and are very popular during Ramadan. You can buy them still hot, served in paper trays and doused with syrup or sprinkled with powdered sugar.
The leavened dough is scooped up with a spoon before it’s dunked into the fryer for a minute, then quickly taken out, says Hussein. It’s dried for a bit before it goes back into the oil for a second time to get a crispy brown coating.
Lokmet el Kadi can be eaten plain, or topped with syrup. But my favorite variety is with powdered sugar. This makes them less syrupy and adds a soft texture that cuts through the sweetness.
Literally translated, Lokmet el Kadi means “the judge’s bite.” It’s said this dessert was created when a judge asked his cook to make him a quick and easy treat.
Recipes for lokmet can be found in cookbooks dating back to the Abbasid Caliphate of the 13th century. Lokmet is also mentioned in the story from One Thousand and One Nights about a porter and the three ladies of Baghdad.
Baklava is yet another dessert that traces its roots back to the Ottoman Empire. And it’s now eaten as widely as that empire once spread: across the Levant and the Middle East, and also the Caucasus, Balkans, Greece and Central Asia.
Some say it was probably developed in the imperial kitchens of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. One historian argues the word may come from the Mongolian for “to wrap up, pile up.” Though there are recipes of a similar dessert that date back to Roman times.
These days, the Greeks and the Turks dispute the dessert’s origins and both claim it as their own.
The sweet, flaky dessert is made of layers of filo filled with nuts and held together by syrup. It’s the most difficult of all oriental sweets to make, says Assistant Chef Hussein.
“Whoever makes it has to be strong because the dough has to be rolled out by hand,” he says. In modern times, most people who make it at home buy a ready-to-go pastry. Though at Cafe Corniche it’s all made from scratch.
There are numerous types of baklava and varieties that include nuts or cream. They can look very different as well, like two entirely different desserts – round topped with pistachios, crescent-shaped or rectangular.
There are countless regional variations as well. The Armenians love paklava spiced with cloves and cinammon. While in Iranian cuisine the dessert is made drier and flavored with rose water.
When I posted a quick photo of some qatayef on Instagram, I got a message from an Egyptian expat in California saying how much he missed this dessert. It brought tears to his eyes.
Perhaps no other dessert is so symbolic of Ramadan in Egypt as this sweet dumpling – stuffed with cream or nuts, then fried and coated in sugary syrup.
Though it’s believed to be of Fatimid origin, qatayef’s history goes back much further to the Abbasid Caliphate (566-653 CE).
It’s not often found around Egypt outside of Ramadan, so if you’re in Cairo during the Holy Month then pick up a box.
During Ramadan, the ready-made qatayef dough makes record sales at supermarkets and quickly sells out. The filling is often a family recipe.
The batter is similar to pancakes, and is grilled before it’s stuffed, shut and fried. The end result is sweet and nutty with crunchy edges. Though less commonly, it can be baked instead of fried and then topped with syrup or honey for a lighter and softer dessert, says Hussein.
Delightfully crunchy and sweet, this traditional Middle Eastern dessert is made with a hair-thin shredded pastry with a cream or cheese filling soaked in syrup. It’s eaten across the Arab world with variants in Turkey, Greece and the Balkans. Konafa also boasts a long history likely dating back to the 10th century Fatimids.
Though it’s especially popular in Palestine, where Kanafeh Nabulsieh (a dish from Nablus) is colored orange and filled with white-brine cheese.
At Cafe Corniche, it comes with a variety of fillings and toppings, including banana, nuts, cream, cashews and almonds.
To make konafa, lay shredded pastry across a tray. Then add ghee and more shredded pastry topped with cream or nuts and cover again with shredded pastry. Give it a generous dousing of syrup when it comes out of the oven.
Every year in Cairo, there are different variants that turn into city-wide trends: konafa filled with chocolate or mango, lotus biscuits, Oreos, creme brulee, etc.
And if you’re at the Intercontinental Cairo Semiramis, then head upstairs to the Birdcage for a true original: shrimp wrapped in the shredded konafa pastry. The creation is a perfect blend of sweet and savory, and the Thai chef’s own invention.
Hugely popular in India, where it’s known as jalebi, this dessert is known in Egypt as meshabek. It’s often made slightly bigger and more transparent in Egypt than in other regions. And though it’s eaten throughout the country during Ramadan, it’s famously popular in the Mediterranean city of Damietta.
Meshabek is made by deep-frying flour batter in a circular shape similar to pretzels that’s later soaked in syrup. The perfect meshabek should be crunchy and slightly tangy on the outside with a chewy center.
I remember always buying meshabek in Khan el Khalili during Eid celebrations. It’s wrapped in plastic and sold as a snack food amid the flashing lights, whirling mechanical toys and balloons sold during the holiday.
9. AISH EL SARAYA
Aish el Saraya consists of breadcrumbs soaked in syrup and caramel topped with clotted cream and pistachios. It’s a creamy and luxurious dessert that reminds me of tiramisu.
Aish el Saraya literally means the “bread of the palace.” It’s widely popular in the Levant with origins likely dating back to the Ottomans.
Served cold, it has the creamy consistency of cheesecake.
I try a piece at Cafe Corniche and immediately fall in love with this decadent dessert. The orange blossom water adds a sweet fragrance that turns the dish into a sensory experience.
10. ASABE ZEINAB
Made with butter, semolina, yeast and ghee, this sweet dessert literally translates to “Zeinab’s fingers.” It’s reportedly the century-old invention of a woman of the same name.
To make these Ramadan sweets, roll and then cut the pastry, then fry it and coat it with syrup.
These delicious cookies date back to Ancient Egypt. A recipe for kahk was found at the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Giza, while carvings depicting kahk can be seen in temples at Memphis and Thebes.
They were made in dozens of shapes and stamped with the image of the sun god Ra.
Fatimid rulers distributed kahk with gold coins inside, an operation that required the creation of a new government department to handle the logistics. Kahk were often stamped with messages that called for loyalty to the leaders. You can still see a few of these Fatimid kahk molds at Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art.
In modern times, they’re still a vital part of Egyptian culture.
They’re topped with powdered sugar and eaten across Egypt and Sudan to celebrate Easter and Eid, the 3-day feast that marks the end of Ramadan. They’re also served at wedding feasts and other celebrations like Mawlid (the birthday of Islamic prophet Muhammad).
Kahk can be plain, or stuffed with a variety of fillings like nuts, dates or Turkish delight.
Families pass down kahk molds, with intricate designs in wood or ceramic, from generation to generation.
And while bakeries in big cities often sell kahk that’s ready to eat, the traditional cookies are still made by hand in the countryside.
They’re not easy to find outside of Ramadan (I’ve tried.) So if you’re in Cairo around the Eid holidays this is an absolute must-try dessert. Kahk filled with rose Turkish delight are my favorite.
Ghoriba are a type of shortbread cookie made with a simple mix of butter, flour and icing sugar, usually topped with a single almond.
These bite-sized cookies are widely popular in the Arab world, and can be traced back historically to Azerbaijan.
A dough is made at Cafe Corniche especially for ghoriba, says Assistant Chef Hussein. It’s then put into the oven on low heat, and topped with a single pistachio or almond nut.
To sample any (or all) of these tasty desserts in Egypt, order a custom-made assortment from Cafe Corniche. Or stop by at the cafe (open 24 hours) for a leisurely dessert with some strong coffee.